Tag Archives: life


Wisdom from my dad

I grew up in a bacon-loving family. When I was seventeen, some scientist discovered a connection between bacon and cancer. I immediately announced I would no longer eat bacon. My dad replied, “You think you are not going to die because you stop eating bacon? No one gets out of this life alive. Eat the bacon.”

Less than a year after that conversation, a friend was killed in Vietnam. At Lonnie’s funeral, I recalled my dad’s words and understood that not only do we not get out of this life alive, but some die very young.

I decided to eat bacon—in moderation.

My dad’s pragmatism and Lonnie’s death helped me develop a realistic view toward life and death.  mindfulness-cancer-faithThe cancer caregivers workshop I attended last month reminded me of my Dad’s admonition that “no one gets out of this life alive.” It also reminded me of the oncologist who treated Jim.

Jim’s oncologist was focused on what was best for Jim’s body—new treatments, a stay in the hospital, etc. Keeping Jim’s body alive was his priority, and he was frustrated when we would not do what he wanted. More than once, he warned that he would not continue to treat Jim if we did not go along with his directives.

He taught me the lesson that doctors treat.

Jim and I were more focused on Jim’s spirit. We knew Jim’s body was going to die—but that his spirit would live on. Our stance was that we are spirits inhabiting bodies rather than bodies that have spirits. We were more concerned that Jim’s spirit be at peace than keeping his body alive longer.

It was as if we were speaking two different languages. His oncologist could not understand why we would not try every possible treatment to keep Jim’s body alive—as if he did not know that Jim’s death was imminent.

The cancer caregivers workshop consisted of presentations followed by small group sessions. The presentations were given by doctors and other medical professionals who introduced a variety of mindfulness practices—breathing, movement, guided imagery, etc.—all within a medical context.

After working in adult education for ten years, I understand that adults learn best when instruction is contextualized. So, for medical people to understand new material, it is best to present it within a medical framework.mindfulness-cancer-faithI had lunch one day with a young doctor. He asked about my work and what I had learned from people facing cancer. I told him that I repeatedly hear that people don’t want to be told what they should, ought to or need to do. “I do that all the time,” he said. “And your patients probably don’t like it,” I replied. He looked stunned.

Perhaps it is time to reform medical training so that doctors and patients can speak the same language and be partners in care. Working together we can help people live healthier, fuller lives—while still understanding that no one gets out of this life alive.




Why words matter

The last thing you say to someone might be the last thing you say to him. These words came to me as a memory from the day my friend Jim had a seizure which left him unconscious. That day ended with a diagnosis of a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer.

In the midst of being told that Jim may never regain consciousness, I wondered, “What was the last thing I said to him?”

Fortunately, I had spoken to him shortly before the seizure and my words were positive.

I know, though, that I don’t end every conversation, every interaction on a positive note. Sometimes I speak out of frustration or anger. Other times, I am distracted or tired or…God-cancer-hopeThat question, though, from the day Jim had a seizure has stayed with me and is a reminder to try to end every conversation on a positive note. That is particularly significant because I work at a cancer support center.

One of the women who came to the center for a couple of years had not been around for a while. Phone calls and messages went unanswered. We knew she had stopped treatment and began to wonder if she was still alive.

Sometimes families don’t notify us for weeks or even months, so we often live in a kind of limbo. But, we learned of this woman’s death within a few days after she had died.

Remembering this particular woman, I wondered what had been my last words to her. I hope they were something that let her know that I was glad to see her and that I cared about her. I hope she felt accepted, consoled and even uplifted.

She had been very realistic about the path she had chosen. She knew that without treatment, the cancer would end her life. But, I don’t think she knew that the last time she came to our center would be the last time. I did not know that the last words I said to her were the last words I would ever say to her.

Some days, I am overwhelmed by the sadness of my work. People learning they have cancer, enduring treatment, anxious for results from scans, some of them dying—it can be so sad.

Other days, though, I am overjoyed by the good news of my work. People learning that the cancer is in remission or that they are cancer-free, optimistic that life holds promise, hopeful for a future they once feared would never come.

Balancing these emotions, this ups and downs of cancer and its many ripple effects, can be difficult for me. God invites me to hold both the joys and sorrows.

I am reminded of St. Paul’s words: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all things through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

Strengthen me, Lord.

God-hope-letting go

Holding on and letting go

A woman I know became sick a few months ago—suddenly. I learned about her illness through social media. Her family asked for prayers and said she was “gravely ill,” but it was not until they used the word “hospice” that I realized how gravely ill she was. In a matter of a few weeks, she went from posting pictures of her husband, children and grandchildren on social media—to dying.

Life is so fragile.

When death is near, what is happening in the rest of the world seems distant and unimportant. The passing of a loved one becomes the most important thing and offers great clarity about what really matters.

I try to remember those moments—the times when I had great clarity about what truly matters in life.God-hope-letting goThese thoughts came back to me while reading the Gospel of Mark. I wonder if St. Mark had clarity as to what was really important, if he had a sense of urgency about spreading the story of Jesus’ life and message.

I thought of how God uses us to spread the Good News. Was Mark a writer? Or was he just compelled to write the story of Jesus? As I pondered Mark’s mission, I was reminded of some notes I received when my friend Jim was dying from brain cancer.

Several friends wrote to me during Jim’s illness reminding me that we were living the Paschal mystery—facing death and resurrection every day. It was true that we knew Jim would die soon and yet every day we found a way to laugh and every day we recited our litany of gratitude.

Jim was unable to read for most of the time he was sick, so I read his mail to him, and I also read any notes I received. One of the notes about the Paschal mystery sparked a conversation about the everyday deaths we faced.

Jim’s physical decline was an obvious death, but there were others that seemed as significant. We kept being faced with situations where we needed to let go so that we could truly live.

Holding on and letting go was part of our daily conversation.

At some point, I realized that it was not just at the time of one’s death, but that living the Paschal mystery was a continual invitation to see things in new ways, to look from different angles and to be open to change.God-hope-letting goAs I reflected, the words to Unsteady by X Ambassadors, popped into my mind.


Hold on

Hold on to me

‘Cause I’m a little unsteady

A little unsteady…If you love me, don’t let go.

Holding on can offer a sense of security and stability, but there’s always the question, What am I holding on to?

While our world may seem to be spiraling out of control, Christians are called to remain “steadfast in faith” (1 Peter 5:9), not caving in to popular culture or the “prowling Satan” but holding on to Jesus’ message of hope.


Living in Technicolor

I have heard grief described in different ways. For example, it is like the ocean, coming in waves; or like a stone you carry around that feels heavy at first, but then you get used to it.

The image that resonated with me, though, was that grief was like fog. Some days the fog would be dense and I could barely see, and others it would be more of a mist. For the past few years, whether dense fog or light mist, I have been seeing the world through a haze. I tried to keep my grief from impacting my day-to-day activities—no sobbing in public for me—but grief has been with me, coloring my world a dull grey.


Grief has been a good teacher, though. It has taught me to be more patient and compassionate, and reminded me how little I know of others’ sufferings. Grief has softened me and helped me be more comfortable with my vulnerability. Grief allowed me to feel what I was feeling without needing to explain.

Another gift of grief is that I seem to be more in tune with nature and the natural rhythms of life; clock time and calendars matter less to me.

Grief has taught me to live smaller and appreciate more.

About a month ago, though, I had a dream that my past was holding me hostage. It was a wake-up call: I could stay with the past or I could move on.

I understand why people adapt the past to the present, to rework memories so that they seem current. Memories offer great comfort, with their familiar people, places and events. It is easy to get lost in memories, in the certainty of the past.

Leaving the familiarity of the past and stepping into the unknown future can be scary. The future seems like a dark abyss, a great risk. But my dream was a clear invitation to let go and move on.

I suppose it had been happening slowly all along, that the days of dense fog were becoming fewer as days of wispy mist became more frequent–only now I am more aware of it. I am choosing to step into the unknown future. The fog has lifted.

I am noticing things and appreciating them in ways I had not for the past few years. Flowers, birds, stars, laughing children, colorful clothes—I can see them again and enjoy them. I am living in Technicolor.

Now, I am planning my future. I am training for a half-marathon in September, and I have started studying Polish again (I dream of living in Poland). I am looking into volunteer opportunities and anticipating concerts and plays this fall.

I am ready to stop talking about the experiences of the past few years and live more fully the lessons of that time—be grateful and let go are my mantras.

I know everything can change in a minute, and so I am appreciating every minute all the more.

Say “Yes” to Life

Here it comes again—July 8.

It was a Friday in 2011, which started out as a typical day. My friend Jim dropped me off at the airport that morning; I was going to Michigan for my niece’s high-school graduation party.

Jim was supposed to pick up the dog at noon and take her to his house for the weekend; he always called to let me know when they had arrived.

I landed in Detroit around 1:15 p.m., and there was no message from Jim. I called all of his phones; no answer anywhere. I knew something was wrong.

It took me a few hours to find him. He had had a seizure in his office and had fallen to the floor, unconscious.

When he arrived at the hospital, a scan checking for a concussion revealed brain cancer. Brain cancer? Unimaginable. Jim was the epitome of health. He exercised regularly and ate a healthy diet.

Now he had brain cancer, and a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer.

I caught the next flight back to Philadelphia and went straight to the hospital.

I remember feeling as though I was trudging through thick mud, or maybe quicksand those first few days. Moving forward slowly, and sinking at the same time. “Nothing will ever be the same,” I remember repeating to myself. Nothing has been.

Those days were a blur of meetings with the surgeon, watching Jim being monitored, making decisions, calling Jim’s friends to tell them what had happened.

Soon, though, I was able to hear God’s voice reminding me that Jim was in God’s hands, as was I. That reminder made a huge difference. I started to shift from fear to trust and even gratitude.

I was grateful that Jim had not had the seizure while he was driving and that I found him while he was still alive and that my sisters had dropped what they were doing to be with me during those hours I waited for a return flight and that the hospital was nearby and that the on-duty neurosurgeon was excellent and on and on. As my fears receded, my gratitude grew.

Lots of little things made a big difference. I started to let go of what got in the way of my gratitude; I focused on Jim and his care.

Others who have experienced the death of someone close to them have told me the death date is significant for them, a day they never forget. I remember the date of Jim’s death, April 3, 2012, but the other “D Day,” the diagnosis day, is much more difficult for me to get through.

July 8 is the day I learned just how fragile life really is and how quickly things can change. Here it comes again, July 8, reminding me to say “yes” to life.

Have a Little Faith

“Have a little faith, Miss,” the postal worker suggested to me when I was having trouble with my forwarded mail after I  moved to Eddystone, PA.

His words have come back to me many times over the years.

Have a little faith.

Sometimes a little faith is all I need. Other times, I need a whole lot more.

I just finished writing a book about the nine months Jim was sick. As I was pulling together my journal entries and emails, writing and editing, I was amazed at how much faith Jim and I had. It was as if our faith grew alongside his cancer. Maybe that is a common occurrence—faith fills in when everything else falls away.

Just a few weeks after Jim was diagnosed, I wrote in my journal, “I pray he will have the strength and faith to hold onto God through this ordeal.”

A few months later, when Jim developed a blood clot, I wrote, “I feel like I am living the passion and death of Jesus every day—grateful each morning when Jim wakes up.…I bring communion home every day and share in that holy communion with him. I get the symbolism of it—our lives wrapped up in the mystery of faith, the mystery of suffering, death and resurrection.”

And on April 9, 2012, a week after he died, I sent this email to family and friends:

“Jim celebrated his 58th birthday on March 21, a birthday he was not sure he would live to see. He was so happy to make it to that day. He would have been happy to die on that day, but God had other plans….

“From his birthday on, though, Jim was getting ready…he wanted no more visitors…he wanted to focus on his journey to God, and he did not want distractions which visitors might bring….

“Jim would often talk about the ripple effects of his journey–how many people were touched in different ways.

“Soon after Jim went into the hospital last July, God asked me to do three things: to love unconditionally, to forgive without limit, and to let go. Jim and I often talked about those three things, and if he were preaching his funeral sermon, he would include them. We often talked about letting go–of hurts (new and old), of expectations, of all the things that keep us from being totally free and completely open to God.

“In the end, Jim let go so well–he went to God, fully conscious and awake. His passing was so incredibly peaceful. His last words to me were ‘It’s ok. Really, it’s ok.’”

While I may have started on that journey with Jim unsure of the depth of my faith, by the end, I was resonating with the story of the mustard seed; I had been given the gift of deep faith. (Matthew 17:20)

The Word

My friend Steve picked a word every year that was his word for the year. At the beginning of November, Steve would start to pray for guidance in choosing his word and by the first Sunday in Advent (the beginning of the Church’s New Year) he had his word. Over the years, his list included such words as love, will, peace, forgiveness, trust, etc.—spiritual words. The practice of choosing a word was one part of his spiritual life.

Steve’s word would shape his prayer life for the year and when our faith-sharing group met, Steve would update us on how his word was influencing his prayer life and vice versa. He seemed to be aware of his word at all times.

I was always impressed that he chose a new word each year and that he remembered it throughout the whole year. It was like a New Year’s resolution that was lived out.

On the First Sunday of Advent this year, I thought of Steve and his words. This spiritual practice of his was a comforting ritual for me. I loved witnessing Steve’s word take on new meanings and new depth over the year. His word was a visible manifestation of his inner life. I felt honored to know Steve’s word and to share in his spiritual journey.

When Steve was still in college, the car he was driving was hit by a train that was speeding through a corn field, and Steve’s body was horribly mangled. Surgeons put his body back together but he was in chronic pain for the rest of his life. He never complained, although he used to say his stomach was on his right shoulder and joke about the number of pills he took every day. He underwent many surgeries over the years, but nothing could completely fix what the train had broken.

Next Sunday will mark one year since Steve went home to God. He was a good friend and a great spiritual companion. Steve had a zany sense of humor, a keen sense of wonder and a deep spirituality. The physical limitations caused by the train wreck did not limit his spirit, and his life was an inspiration to me.

I miss him terribly.